Football is a class act
Over the festive season many South American players celebrated their break from football – by organising games of football, often for charity.
With all the complaints about too much football, this might seem like strange behaviour.
But these Christmas and new year kickabouts have none of the pressure of their normal professional careers.
Most top footballers seem to agree that they got more enjoyment from playing when they were kids when everything was more care-free.
Lionel Messi left his home country Argentina at an early age to join Spanish club Barcelona and is now regarded as the best player in the world. Photo: Getty
These days their bodies are stretched to the limit – often in ways that carry long-term consequences.
Their work, sometimes their very self-worth, is played out, judged and at times found wanting in front of thousands in the stadium and a TV audience of millions.
There are less stressful ways of making a living – but what a living. After two years at a top club, a player can have earned so much that he never needs to work again.
There is an obvious case to be made about the distribution of wealth but many of those who attack footballers’ earnings feel that respect and the big money should go, in the recent words of one British politician, to those who perform “serious hard work”.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is some class prejudice in this. Golf stars, Formula One drivers and the top tennis players never seem to attract the same criticism – but they are usually middle class.
The footballers, meanwhile, have triumphed in an activity that has few barriers to entry.
A top player for a major Premier League club may have been born in a poor area of somewhere like Ecuador or Senegal. What carries him there is his own merit.
Unlike many walks of life, having a famous father can only get you so far.
It is open to all and football is one of the most-competitive areas of contemporary life.
Those who shine in it are putting on a show that is enjoyed by countless millions.
Throw in the risk of injury and the short duration of the career and it becomes hard to begrudge footballers their pay packets.
Handing over so much money to these young men is not without problems, however.
One of my favourite quotes about the game comes from the Argentina’s 1978 World Cup-winning coach Cesar Luis Menotti.
He said: “To be a footballer means being a privileged interpreter of the feelings and dreams of many, many people.”
A player is important in terms of who he represents but it becomes easier to forget this when the rivers of money are flowing.
Players are more inclined to act like private companies, where the objective of the exercise is to use the prestige won on the pitch as a passport to ‘the life’ – an extended version of a pop video or a double-page spread in a glossy celebrity magazine.
Even more worrying than this inversion of values is the transformation of youngsters into commodities.
In Brazil there are promising 15 year olds whose families have stopped working.
Everyone has become a support structure to the teenage prodigy, the boy prince forced to carry the economic hopes of his entire family.
It is clearly not right to burden an adolescent with such responsibilities.
No wonder some of these players look back so fondly on care-free childhood football.
In this awkward balancing act between business and culture, the truly great footballers have something in common.
They exist in an adult world of sponsorship, contracts and cost-benefit analysis – but, when they take the field, they are able to retain some of that youthful spirit of play.
They also understand the game well enough to know that its greatest pleasures are collective. It is a case of, ‘What we achieved together’ rather than, ‘Did you see my freestyle trick?’
The previous two paragraphs could serve as a description of Barcelona and Argentina superstar Lionel Messi.
A few weeks ago he hurried back across the Atlantic after playing in two grueling World Cup qualifiers for his country.
Should Barcelona rest him at the weekend? Coach Pep Guardiola thought not. “Playing football fulfils him,” Guardiola said.
There is never any sense with Messi that being a footballer plays second fiddle to living the life of a celebrity. Guardiola’s selection paid off.
Messi played and scored as Barcelona swept Zaragoza aside. He played with verve and spark, with joy and also with team spirit.
Messi hardly seems to care about individual awards. And because he plays that way, he keeps winning them.
And he is on the podium once more, the unassuming little guy within reach of another Fifa World Player of the Year award.
Please comment on the piece in the space provided below. You can send questions on South American football to email@example.com and I’ll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week’s postbag.
Q: A lot has been made of Santos's rise to the top of South American football, with Neymar grabbing all the headlines, along with his young Brazilian team-mate Ganso. But what has Elano brought to the team? I always thought he was a classy player but he always seemed to be unsettled. Has playing second fiddle to Neymar helped him recapture top form?
He has not brought too much to the team of late. Elano has had a bad few months, with loss of form and injuries. He has indeed had a strange career – a very useful part of Dunga’s Brazil side, and branded as world-class for a few months at Manchester City. As you say, he was frequently unsettled. Perhaps he has been a victim of his own versatility? In form and in the right frame of mind, there is plenty he can bring to the centenary year of Santos, from his superbly struck set-pieces to his capacity to operate in a number of functions. This is a big year for him.
Q: I was watching the excellent documentary Senna recently and I'm currently fascinated by this amazing man. I was wondering how he was viewed in Brazil.
Ayrton Senna remains a revered national hero. I remember being on a beach on the Sao Paulo coast in April 1993, when suddenly everyone was on their feet cheering and celebrating. Why? Because Senna had just won a Grand Prix in England. I couldn’t think of anyone in our culture who would provoke the same scale of response. He was successful in that long, dry time when Brazil was not winning World Cups – and also when there was little to celebrate in Brazilian public and economic life.
The fact that he was a rich kid winning in the sport of rich kids is also important. Middle-class Brazilians could relate to him more easily than to many of the footballers.